Not Everyone Loves Theme Decks

Feature Article from Bruce Richard
Bruce Richard
8/8/2017 11:01:00 AM
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This is the week Commander players get excited about! All the new cards from Commander 2017 are previewed (did you see TCGPlayer's preview Hungry Lynx?) and everyone goes looking through the cards, picking their favorites and eviscerating the underwhelming cards. I love cards that do special things in games with more than two players, so the Commander 2017 sets are like Christmas in August for me!

And this year, I get a special treat. I love theme decks! Ever since I started playing Magic I've built theme decks. At first it was an easy way to make a cogent deck as opposed to a random group of cards. Putting all of your Elves or Goblins in one deck made the cards better. It provided a focus for someone who didn't necessarily understand most deckbuilding principles but still wanted something fun to play.

And players more inventive than me have put together some crazy theme decks! Friends in the past have built Lord of the Rings decks, Monsters from the Deep Blue and even a Simpsons deck that I still don't really understand.

Most players though, opt for a creature type theme, and the Commander decks are great examples of those decks. If you have been playing for even a little while, you have likely faced off against a theme deck. Elementals, Golems and even Germ decks have appeared in my games. They are fun to play and watch, but tend to be a little underpowered in comparison to the usual fare people bring to the table, but I love these decks. The gameplay tends to involve a lot more storytelling and laughing about the power of an obviously underwhelming creature that wouldn't make it in a deck if it wasn't for the theme.

Not all creature-themed decks are like this. So many creature types have been around a very long time, that the pool of cards to choose from is pretty deep and filled with powerful cards. Elves and Goblins are the two culprits that tend to spring to mind, but every color has a few creature types that can produce powerful, synergistic decks that will run you over quickly. Ask someone who just played against a Sliver deck what they think of theme decks.

So in a week filled with love for creature-themed decks – big Dragons and cute little Kitties – I give you a little bit of hate for those decks! You are going to see plenty of theme decks as players take the new decks out for a spin or try their hand at their own theme deck. To prepare, I give you a list of cards that reel in the out-of-control theme deck just a little bit, so your deck can still do its thing without getting run over.

Riders of Gavony

Mid
Low
 Riders of Gavony
$0.37
$0.12
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It seems a little bizarre that I would suggest a card that appears best suited for a Human theme deck as a way to slow down theme decks, but here we are! In a Human-themed deck, Riders gives all of your creatures protection from another player's theme deck. In a deck that isn't Human-themed, you likely have at least a couple other Humans just incidentally in your deck, so this will still do some work.

How you choose to use the Riders will depend a lot on the creatures you are facing. The Riders have vigilance, so swinging in against whatever you are facing offers little downside since the Riders will still be there ready to block on your turn. However, the other Humans on the team may not have vigilance so you'll need to decide if you are better off attacking or staying back to block. Keep in mind that your Humans only have protection against one creature type, so keeping your 1/1 Human back to block probably isn't going to be that effective against other opponents' decks.

The Riders can also be a bit of a glass tower. If a different opponent doesn't like that your protection is sending the theme deck towards them rather than you, they can eliminate the Riders and leave you more vulnerable than you were expecting. And even the opponent running that theme deck likely has removal that you aren't protected from.

Either way, I still like the Riders. If only a couple of your creatures get help, you are less likely to be targeted and enjoy the benefits. Of course, if your opponents happen to be running two theme decks, you'll have to choose which creature type is more threatening. Or you could just run Eldrazi Displacer and bounce the Riders so you get whichever protection you need, whenever you need it!

Circle of Solace

Mid
Low
 Circle of Solace
$0.35
$0.10
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I think this card is cute, and in the right situation this could shut a deck down. Naming Dragons or Vampires cripples those decks, especially considering they tend to have a more difficult time dealing with enchantments. It is also handy against decks with incidental creature themes. I'm thinking of decks that give your opponents a bunch of token creatures and try to overwhelm you. Running this card will give you that cool moment when you play a card that has limited use against most decks but is just miserable for another.

Of course, you could just play a Circle of Protection for the color of the creature, couldn't you? The thing is, you aren't even doing that because it requires so much mana be left open every turn to be effective. It also isn't that great against theme decks that can easily handle an enchantment that is just sitting there, or against ten creatures all coming in at you.

Feel free to give this card a shot, but know there are better options.

Outbreak / Engineered Plague

Mid
Low
 Engineered Plague
$0.39
$0.05
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I've grouped these two together for obvious reasons. While they only give -1/-1, this is miserable for theme decks with smaller creatures, since it makes it so difficult to ramp up to a critical number of creatures if the smallest ones keep dying. Normally, a card like this would simply be too niche to ever put in your deck. After all, it is only good against theme decks – and theme decks where most of the creatures have only one toughness – which is a rare occurrence. Most of the smaller creature theme decks have ways to pump up their teams through various lords offering a power and toughness boost, or enchantments giving a boost. But many of those decks are something of a house of cards; The lord shrinks in size and ends up dying, costing all the other creatures their boost and leaving them dead with just the small drop you get from these cards.

And even when the whole house doesn't fall down, Outbreak can mess up their combat defenses. Cast it before and watch as they try to block with the few creatures that can now survive combat. Cast it after combat and watch bigger creatures die off as the player realizes they didn't account for this little card to show up when their forces were weakened.

Engineered Plague doesn't even need to destroy a theme deck. The -1/-1 might not kill off the effected creatures, but it reduces the effectiveness of all but the biggest creatures. A group of 5/5 Dragons still hurt, but a group of 3/3 Soldiers now march as 2/2 creatures. Don't underestimate how much that can affect strategy and what a player is willing to do!

I particularly like this card against decks that run cards that produce a mass of token creatures. Avenger of Zendikar and Prossh, Skyraider of Kher are not fans of these cards. This is part of the reason why I advocate for these cards in your decks during a time when theme decks are going to be popular. They will do work against theme decks and can also be helpful against other token decks.

An-Zerrin Ruins

Mid
Low
 An-Zerrin Ruins
$3.47
$0.40
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I love the elegance of this Homelands card. The idea that you are basically saying, “I'm going to give you one shot with your creatures. Make it count!” It doesn't destroy them all or do damage to them all as you might expect from red – it just alters things a little bit and makes someone's battlefield position much weaker.

This is just beautiful! The Ruins have saved me more than once in games where a Pegasus Stampede has just tapped out to take out a different opponent, or someone's Zombie horde swung at a different opponent and is now mostly in limbo due to a surprise An-Zerrin Ruins.

This enchantment is different than Circle of Solace in that it protects everyone at the table. The Dragons that are tapped down can't attack you, or anyone else. With the Circle, every opponent has some reason to take out your enchantment. With An-Zerrin Ruins, only the Dragon player has any interest in removing the enchantment.

An-Zerrin Ruins also changes how the theme deck player plays. Knowing their creatures won't untap means they are far less likely to attack or do anything that involves tapping the creature. The player tends to try to set up for a single alpha attack, but this can often take several turns and even then, their creatures will stay tapped until their next untap step. Will the other players in the game politely wait for that player to untap before swinging in?

This is obviously not a permanent solution, but it does buy you time for the rest of your deck to kick in and make them pay. And besides, cards that quote Baron Sengir are better for it!

Tsabo's Decree

Mid
Low
 Tsabo's Decree
$0.76
$0.38
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The other cards on the list require a careful touch. You want to strategically determine the best time to play the card and carefully balance how players will Retaliate and respond. Those cards are part of a chess match between you and your opponents.

Tsabo's Decree is the table flip card on this list. It comes in with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. The other cards are light chamber music at high tea; Tsabo's Decree is heavy metal in a mosh pit! A six-mana instant may not be too surprising, but even if the target is expecting it, it isn't like they can hide the creatures in their hand to avoid it!

This is a card that works even when an opponent isn't running a theme deck. You can destroy a particular creature and look at that player's hand at instant speed, or take out a stack of token creatures that are causing you misery. Admittedly, six mana is a lot to pay for either of these effects, but in games without a theme deck to destroy, they are fine backup plans!

And this card is a straight-up bomb that really does destroys a theme deck's game. You wipe out their board and their ability to rebuild. Cards that wipe the table and wipe your hand are serious trouble. Your opponent is now forced to draw off the top to try and save themselves. This card is misery for any theme deck. I have been on both sides of this card and it is lousy all around. I do encourage you to have a way to finish the opponent once you've played it. Tsabo's Decree chops off the arms and legs of an opponent. Leaving them there to die slowly, bleeding out for several turns, is just cruel.

Bruce Richard
@manaburned




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